Writing on photography

Review – Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity at The Photographer’s Gallery

I will never know what it is like to be a mother. I can of course attempt to imagine it, but despite an overactive imagination I doubt these efforts will ever really amount to much. The reality of motherhood, as with all human experience, is inevitably much more diverse than the resources of scant personal experience and abundant cultural cliché that my imagination can draw on. Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood, a new exhibition at The Photographers Gallery (with a simultaneous related exhibition at The Foundling Museum), attempts to highlight some of these heterogeneous experiences, and ‘challenge reductive cultural assumptions of motherhood’.

This is a tall order, many photographic exhibitions promise to challenge ingrained attitudes and give us insight into overlooked experiences, relatively few make good. This show, curated by Susan Bright (who along with Val Williams previously co-curated the much lauded How We Are: Photographing Britain) almost achieves it with a diverse array of work from twelve artists, some mothers, some not.  The first piece I encountered in the gallery was in fact by a father, not a mother.  Fred Hüning’s Einer, Zwei, Drei are a trilogy of three small books which explore the cycles of life and death that surround parenthood. First the birth of a stillborn child, second the couple’s attempts to recover from this huge trauma, and thirdly a successful pregnancy and birth.

Identity is, as the title suggests, a recurrent theme in the work. Katie Murray’s video piece Gazelle for example, cuts footage of the artist exercising (in an attempt to regain her pre-pregnancy figure), with footage of a group of lions trying to kill a gazelle, all over the pumping beat of a workout video soundtrack. Another interesting body of work nearby is Hanna Putz’s series of portraits of her friends soon after they had given birth. In each Putz obscures the mother’s identity with the body of their child, according to the curatorial statement in order to protect their privacy. It is however just as easy to read the work as a loss of identity, the replacement of the mother’s individuality with the communal identity of motherhood.

Another notable part of the show is Elina Bortherus’s Annonciation, a series of self-portraits taken over the course of five years as the photographer underwent unsuccessful IVF treatment, it poses perhaps the most interesting question in the show, how do we even define motherhood? In Brotherus’s case the desire and intent to become a mother, and her commitment to unpleasant medical treatment in pursuit of that seems as profound a change in identity as that undergone by the women who successfully became mothers.

Brotherus’s work also made evident what seemed to me to be the biggest shortcoming of the exhibition, the glaring lack of attention paid to topics like adoption and surrogacy, and the question of how these fit into the wider issue of motherhood. Unfortunately the show is also rather dominated by the contribution of one artist, Leigh Ledare. His Pretend You’re Actually Alive uses photography, documents and video to explore his relationship to his mother, an ageing ex-ballerina. In terms of clichés of motherhood these photographs are the most obviously iconoclastic, and include several of Ledare’s mother having sex with much younger men.

Whether you feel it pushes interesting boundaries or is unnecessarily explicit is almost beside the point (to some extent I feel it is both). Ledare’s work  seems more than anything else in the exhibition like it ought to be seen on its own. Seen instead as part of a larger group of photographs I had the feeling that it rather unbalanced the exhibition, overshadowing some of the more subtle but no less provocative works on display. Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity is on at the Photographer’s Gallery until January 5th 2014.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


Leave a Reply to Andrew Brown Cancel reply

  • One thing to note: the show is in two parts. The second is at the Foundling Museum, which, understandably given the venue, deals with loss, adoption, etc. You may want to amend your review to acknowledge that point.

    • I did mention that in the introduction. I haven’t seen the second show yet, does it actually deal with adoption, I thought just about loss?

      If the other one deals with these themes it just makes you wonder why Brotherus’s photography was even included in this strand of the exhibition?

    • The exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery is about motherhood and identity: that is, a woman’s identity as a mother. Hence the inclusion of Brotherus. Her work in the show is about her efforts to become a mother in reality, having become one in her mind and self.

      The show at the Foundling is about loss – specifically the loss of one’s mother: through death, separation, adoption or dementia. Yes it’s true that surrogacy does not feature in that exhibit, but then nor is the loss of a child’s mother through work, imprisonment, divorce, etc. Space and practical issues often dictate the shape and content of a show – or a book for that matter – as much as anything else.

    • Or a book like the companion book to this exhibition that you’re publishing right? Sorry I didn’t have time to check your website until now, I’d be interested to see how this has been dealt with in book form.

      Anyway I still think its a problematic inclusion that rather highlights the difficulty of staging two linked exhibitions in two different places. I imagine the place of Brotherus’s work would make more sense to me if I’d seen The Foundling Museum show as well, but I haven’t, and I imagine many of the people seeing this exhibition also won’t have. This is a problem that perhaps should have been anticipated.

    • Hi Wojtek, I found it weirdly brutal and beautiful, I particularly liked this photograph, it reminded me of this image from The Cabient of Dr. Caligari, perhaps a total coincidence but it seemed like a nice match.

  • Reveals surprising, stirring and provocative angles on relationships between mothers and their children.… The overall effect of this fascinating collection not only exposes home truths, it also suggests intriguing fantasy in the maternal links. —

Writing on photography